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Black families open up, cram education in

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Staff Writer
Published October 22, 2003

NEW YORK - Each time I visit my relatives in Harlem, I always inquire about the children, especially the boys.

Harlem, like most other black enclaves elsewhere, destroys too many African-American boys long before they become teenagers, which encouraged me to visit a cousin, Shirley Harrell, a single, divorced mom with two boys - one in third grade, the other in seventh grade. I have always liked her kids because they are polite and easygoing. Shirley, 38, is a full-time department store cashier and a part-time business major at City College.

She clearly understands the vital role that education plays in the lives of her children. The boys love school, and their teachers say they are exemplary students.

Shirley wants the very best for her sons: "Yeah, they do the stuff other boys do - listen to music, play basketball, hang out on 125th Street. But they like doing school work, too. They like to study. I'm trying to get ahead, but it's been hard. I didn't have anybody to tell me how to get ahead. I had to learn on my own. It won't be that way for my children. I'm doing all I can to give my kids a head start. I'm teaching them how."

For the second year, Shirley's sons are attending a Korean cram school in Queens. Each afternoon, she and the boys ride the subway to a storefront. There, the boys, along with 45 other students, study for three hours with certified math, English and science teachers. On Saturday mornings, they make the trip again. The boys study for four more hours.

One tangible payoff is the improvement of the boys' grades. They went from earning C's and the occasional B to making all A's and B's. The grades are important, but Shirley says she cares more about the boys' new love of learning: "Up here in Harlem, they don't have a lot of role models their own age. A lot of these kids don't open a book after they get off the subway. My kids just don't fit in because they love to study. That makes me feel bad.

"The cram school is different. Those Korean kids study very hard. My boys are the only blacks in the school, but they fit in. I mean, it's normal to work hard. Nobody says they're acting white. When they see all these other kids studying, my kids don't feel weird. The peer pressure is positive. Studying has become a habit - second nature."

Shirley is one of a growing number of African-American parents in Harlem to discover the benefits of the cram schools, long an integral part of Far Eastern education.

I met another family whose 16-year-old son attends a Chinese cram school in Flushing. The boy is taking a weekend SAT prep class that meets for 14 weeks. Their daughter took the same class two years ago, aced the SAT and won a full scholarship to Columbia University to study biology.

My hope is that this phenomenon spreads throughout Harlem and other black communities nationwide. Education is the key to our uplift and creating a larger, more solid middle class that can take advantage of the nation's unlimited opportunities and enjoy its vast wealth.

Shirley and other Harlemites are right to encourage their children to love learning for its own sake. This new generation will reject the self-destructive mantra that being smart is acting white.

For good reason, Asian children have been labeled the "model minority." If this label is a stereotype, Shirley says she wishes it on all black children. For black children to become another model minority, black parents must change their views on learning and formal education.

"You can't be selfish," Shirley said. "Blacks have got to start sacrificing for the children. I'm not a saint or anything, but I put my babies first. I don't make much money. Their dad helps out some, about $150 a month. I spend every penny I can on the boys' classes. I don't even think about it."

While in Shirley's two-bedroom apartment on St. Nicholas Avenue, I noticed the boys' many awards for excellence in math, writing and science. Books are everywhere. The boys share a tiny bedroom, and each has a laptop that Shirley bought through a discount program her church sponsored.

"A lot of people, even some of our kinfolks, told me I was pushing my kids too hard," she said. "I told them to get lost. When people don't understand what you're doing, you have to shut them out and do what you know is right. My kids don't complain. They love making good grades. They really want to study hard."

The seventh grader wants to attend the cram school's summer SAT class. Shirley said: "I'll do anything legal to come up with the money. If he wants to get ahead, I'm going to help him."

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